Saturday, February 21, 2015

Third Thoughts on Certainty

The esteemed American author Tobias Wolff gave a scintillating reading yesterday in Our Savior Church at the Caruso Catholic Center of USC. He read a brief short story ("In the Garden of the North American Martyrs") followed by an essay entitled "Second Thoughts on Certainty." The essay describes his encounter with the story of Saint Jean de Brebeuf, a French Jesuit missionary who lived and preached among the Huron Indians of Quebec in the early 1600s. It is a fascinating story of undaunted courage and unquestioning faith, with Brebeuf ultimately suffering an horrendous death at the hands of the Hurons' enemy, the Iroquois. Within a generation the Huron nation dispersed and went extinct, due in no small part to the missionary's inadvertently destructive influence on their culture.
It is Brebeuf's astounding certainty of belief that Wolff finds both awe-inspiring and disturbing. Although Wolff's essay was published back in 1994, well before 9/11 and our intermittent "War on Terror," his grappling with the difficult issues of doubt, faith, moral relativism and tolerance seem even more crucially pertinent today. His essay ends with this:
"Here is the problem. Is it possible to live a life of authentic faith without the kind of headlong conviction shown by Brebeuf? What else could have sustained him in his solitude and frustration and suffering? I envy him his certainty, until I think of the arrogance and blindness that came with it. We have learned to suspect such ardor. As I write these words, men of unbending principle and purity of motive are righteously herding people into camps and planting bombs on airplanes and firing artillery shells into crowded marketplaces. Our greatest murderers have been True Believers. And so, mindful of the evils done in faith’s name, we have learned to be wary of faith itself, and of the voice that speaks for any single faith. We’ve taught ourselves to listen for the truth in each competing voice, to extend recognition to every contender.
"But how much of this tolerance can we stand, without losing our way? If all things are true, then what particular thing is worth living for, let alone worth dying for? How unsatisfactory it is to be forever open to discussion, to see the other side of every argument, to give respect in so many directions at once. I know I am not alone in my disgust with the flaccidity of spirit that comes upon us as the consequence of trying always to accommodate the justice in each claim on our sympathy and understanding. I believe that this disgust is the greatest spiritual problem of our time. In its grip we long for certainty as for the clear streams and lush fields of a childhood home we never really had. How dangerous this longing is, what terrible things it makes us do for those who promise to satisfy it.
"And still I confess that I feel rebuked by such assurance as Brebeuf’s, Brebeuf who never hesitated, who went to his death without a second thought. The Lord Himself didn’t do that. He prayed for the cup to pass Him by. Even at the end, He doubted, for which I give thanks. His doubts are blessings. They pardon us for ours. I’d be lost without them."
We are indeed lost without doubts, but we must not allow ourselves to be lost with them, either. As Islamic State religious zealots slaughter their way across the Middle East while surrounding powers and Western leaders gaze on in horror, it is abundantly clear now who ventures into the unknown with certainty and who is hobbled by doubts. It seems to me the balance of faith and doubt has swung too far from brave Brebeuf. Like the Lord we need to find a way to move through our uncertainty, and with open eyes do what must be done.

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